Battered woman syndrome (BWS) is a psychiatric and legal term that refers to the constellation of psychological effects experienced by abused women and is intended to explain, for example, why women stay with their abusive partners and why abused women sometimes kill their abusive partners. The term emerged in the late 1970s and has been a source of legal and academic controversy ever since. BWS is considered as a subcategory of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but is not listed by name in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. BWS is associated with the presentation of symptoms such as learned helplessness, re-experiencing trauma, generalized anxiety, lowered self-esteem, social withdrawal, and intrusive recollections. Women in abusive relationships experience learned helplessness as a result of cycles of abuse and are thus repeatedly exposed to more violence. One feature of BWS holds that women stay with their abusers because of learned helplessness; this is one of the most controversial features of BWS, with many researchers arguing that the data are not supportive.
According to BWS, intimate partner violence proceeds through cycles composed of three phases: the tension-building phase, the active battering phase, and the loving, respite phase. During the tension phase, the victim is subjected to verbal abuse and minor physical abuse. The active battering phase results from the release of tension from the batterer and results in violence for a period of 2 to 24 hours. During this phase, the victim is unable to control the batterer with techniques that worked during the tension-building phase. This inability to control the batterer is theorized to result in learned helplessness. During the loving, respite phase, the abuse subsides and the batterer expresses remorse and promises that it will never happen again. The batterer exhibits loving and affectionate behavior shown earlier in their relationship. These affectionate behaviors result in falsely assuring the victim that the abuse was isolated and will not occur again.
There are several theories put forth to explain BWS. The three most common theories are Walker’s battered women’s syndrome theory, Gondolf and Fisher’s survivor disorder theory, and PTSD theory. Survivor disorder theory differs from battered woman’s syndrome theory in the emphasis of learned helplessness. Survivor disorder theory emphasizes a lack of support resources available to abused women as the primary reason they do not leave the abusive relationship. PTSD theory views BWS as a subcategory of PTSD and is currently a predominant theory of the development of BWS.
The validity of BWS as a psychiatric disorder has been debated intensely. Many have argued that the value of BWS lies primarily in its educational role in informing individuals about the impact of abuse on women through high-profile judicial proceedings. Others have argued that BWS is the product of legal defense teams negotiating a defense for the abused woman’s actual or attempted murder of her abusive partner. The premises of BWS appear to have validity in the scientific community, but the rigorous standards for admitting the syndrome into DSM-IV-TR requires further empirical work.
Identifying the psychological and demographic characteristics of women in abusive relationships will be of substantial benefit to clinicians. By identifying such characteristics, clinicians will be in a better position to understand the abuse and, more importantly, understand women’s reactions to the abuse and the effectiveness of various treatment programs. Recognition of BWS as a distinct disorder may result from an examination of these issues.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: Author.
- Dixon, W. (2001). Battered woman syndrome. Retrieved from http://www.psychologyandlaw.com/battered.htm
- Dutton, A. (1996, September). Critique of the “battered woman syndrome” model. Retrieved from http://www.vaw.umn.edu/documents/vawnet/bws/bws.html
- Gondolf, W., & Fisher, E. R. (1988). Battered women as survivors: An alternative of learned helplessness. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
- Walker, E. (1979). The battered woman. New York: Harper and Row.
- Walker, E. (1984). Battered woman syndrome. New York: Springer-Verlag.